CRAWFORD | Kentucky football secures bowl eligibility, now eyes another prize at Louisville
The University of Kentucky is bowl eligible for the first time since 2010 after beating Austin Peay 49-13 in its home finale on Saturday.
LEXINGTON, Ky. (WDRB) — On a cold, blustery day in Commonwealth Stadium, with winter suddenly settling over the region — and on top of it, a Lexington-area burn ban killing tailgate parties by the hundreds — the crowd that showed up to watch the University of Kentucky football team reach bowl eligibility for the first time since 2010 was modest.
But even if it falls in a forest with few people there to hear it, a five-year bowl-less streak does make a sound.
You could hear the roars outside the Kentucky locker room after the Wildcats beat hapless Austin Peay 49-13. You could see the joy in the eyes of seniors like Jojo Kemp.
“You know, new stadium, new facilities, new look. This is the new Kentucky,” Kemp said. “So going out there and accomplishing the goal of getting to a bowl that we set this year was a remarkable experience. It just feels good to get this for the fans and the state of Kentucky and the city of Lexington.”
This time, there wasn’t much drama. Well, maybe just a little. Quarterback Stephen Johnson was on the bench to start the game, out with a knee injury according to coaches, but available in the case of emergency. Instead, Kentucky coach Mark Stoops turned to sophomore transfer Luke Wright, who had not thrown a pass all season.
Austin Peay, which now has lost 27 straight games, had led for only 18:11 in 10 games this season, and never by more than seven points. It had not led any game at the end of one quarter.
It led Kentucky 7-0 at the end of the first quarter. It had outgained the Wildcats 134-22. It led in time of possession, 11:32 to 3:28. On the first play of the second quarter, Austin Peay’s Gun Scholato picked off a Wright pass and returned it 25 yards for a touchdown and Austin Peay had its largest lead of the season. It was, in fact, Austin Peay’s largest lead in any game since going up 14-0 on Tennessee State on Nov. 8, 2014.
The school’s famous rallying cry, “Let’s Go Peay,” seemed especially poignant, amid thoughts that the Kentucky football team might take this occasion to do just that on its long-awaited bowl opportunity. (And not that kind of bowl. Why did I even have to go there?)
That’s when Stoops turned to his starting quarterback with the thought, “It’s an emergency.”
Johnson entered the game, and the Wildcats scored 42 points in the next 13:21 of game time to close the lid, um, door, on the Governors.
Now, look. This wasn’t vintage Kentucky football. Stoops did not have his guys fully cranked up, even if it was Senior Day, with a bowl on the line, because he didn’t need to have them cranked up. The Wildcats gave up 257 yards rushing. Early in the game, they overran some plays and gave up some cut-back yards. Like the season itself, the game wasn’t pretty. (And let me say this for Austin Peay -- it put up 4,000 yards of offense for the first time since 1994 and has a good young coach in Will Healy. Building is difficult, especially when you're a Football Bowl Subdivision program in that spot an SEC opponent.)
But years from now at UK, nobody’s going to remember the ugly parts. They’re going to remember that this year’s Kentucky team got the program back into a bowl game, and that’s an important step.
There have been some missed opportunities along the way. There was an 0-2 start. There was a near win over Georgia that would’ve put the Wildcats in contention for a better bowl. But in the end, a bowl game is progress, because to fall short of a bowl game would have been the opposite of progress.
“It's hard to control the emotions right now. It is. Because I'm very thankful and appreciative of this team, the administration, our fans, the people that sat out there tonight and it was cold, nasty day and stuck with us through the good times and the bad,” Stoops said. “And I greatly appreciate everybody. I said it Day One and I continue to say it, that it's going to take all of us to take this program to new heights. So, it is. It's hard, for me right now, to be totally honest with you. Because I'm very proud that group (in the locker room).”
Of the players, Stoops said, “I told the team that we talk about toughness and an attitude, every day, and being resilient. And this team has showed that. It wouldn't have happened without the great leadership of our seniors and I'm very happy for them. They have been through some ups and some downs. And they knew very clearly when I got here, what we were up against and what we were trying to do and there was going to be some tough times. And they stayed the course. They never flinched. And it's not always easy, but that's been a fun group to coach and we're going to continue to push forward.”
It was a step Kentucky had to take. Saturday’s crowd was announced at 48,948 but was nowhere close. Large sections of gray bleachers were empty in the upper decks. Frankly, the crowd might’ve been lucky to hit 30. Joker Phillips got fired after drawing a crowd a little smaller than this one. Opponent, weather, lots of things play into these kinds of things. But the program needed a positive, particularly at the end of the season, and now it has one.
“I think the best word to say is a lot of relief,” said sophomore tight end C.J. Conrad, who snagged a 14-yard TD pass from Johnson to put UK up 14-13 late in the second quarter. “Now we can just focus on having fun in this last game and try to do something special.”
Beating Louisville would definitely super-charge things around the Kentucky program. The No. 5-ranked Cardinals are coming off a 36-10 loss to Houston that dashed their College Football Playoff hopes. Nobody knows where the emotional state of the Cardinals will be.
Everybody knows, however, that the Cardinals are still playing for a possible Orange Bowl berth, and that quarterback Lamar Jackson is still playing for the Heisman Trophy,.
Kemp, who finished his final game at Commonwealth Stadium with a pair of touchdown runs, said that UK just wants to focus on being sharper
“It was exciting, a lot of joy (in the locker room) that we got to take things a step forward today, now we just want to get one more next week,” Kemp said. “We’ve just got to go out and be more detail-oriented. That game is really big. It’s just an opportunity to take things another step forward.”
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